Essays by Stan Tenen

A Purloined Letter: The Evidence is Not Hidden
©1999 Stan Tenen

Honest research and new or unexpected claims require honest criticism and detailed response. One of the most common questions posed by scholarly critics is quite simple and obvious: if what you are proposing is so, why wasn't it written down, and why don't we know of it from available references? This very reasonable question requires a serious response. My general response is discussed in a handful of essays on literalism and learning which are available on the Meru website: A Few Notes on Literalism, Some Difficult Questions On Science vs. Faith, and Learning by Copying vs. Learning by Reading.

I claim that the models and metaphors I am proposing are clearly described in traditional references, but the references are being read in a trivial way, because the wordsmith-scholars who provide translations and interpretations for us are not adept at recognizing geometric or other technical allusions, or of recognizing how or why such "geometric metaphor" would be pertinent.

One of the references attached to the "Squaring the Circle" press release provides an excellent example of how the apparently obvious meaning does not convey the intended meaning. Quotation (3) tells us that "The alphabet originated from . two symbols, | 0, the stroke and the circle." L.D. Nelme, in his essay on the origin of letters, "shows that all elementary characters, or letters, derive their forms from the line and the circle." (And the continuing discussion). Our first thought on reading the simple and obvious meaning of the words, and comparing this claim to the simple and obvious forms of various letters, naturally leads us to conclude that the author is claiming that each and every letter shape consists of line segments that are either straight or curved (or part of a circle). In other words, the quote is read as a comment on the orthography of the letters.

The problem with this interpretation, seemingly so obvious and natural, is that it is trivial. We have to presume that the author was saying something obvious, and we really don't have a reason for such an obvious statement to be part of a philosophical work. In other words -- so what? Aren't all letter shapes as line shapes either straight or curved? Where is the philosophical, theological, or cosmological significance in this? And given that most translators and scholarly interpreters are not familiar with geometry, or with any other deep context with regard to claims about supposedly sacred letters, what other meaning could there be?

I am suggesting that the true intended meaning is philosophically deep, and that the claim is not that each different letter is a different combination of various lengths of straight and curved lines, but rather, that the alphabet "squares the circle," and that each and every letter is a shadow of one particular arrangement of a line and a circle, pulled into 3 dimensions, in the form of a model human hand. This is a non-trivial claim with potentially important implications.

Of course, outside of the larger context of kabbalistic teachings, my theory would be a grand overspecification. But in the context of the geometric metaphor -- the system of unfolding models that model the Torah text as a "tree of life for those who grasp it" -- what I am suggesting is part of a coherent whole that makes sense.

Clearly, it would be unreasonable to presume that traditional wordsmith scholars would find this, or would find it easy to understand or appreciate, even when pointed out. Talents beyond those of wordsmith scholarship are necessary. Clearly, if the model I'm proposing is valid, there is a lot more work for scholars who are comfortable with geometry to do, and a lot more to learn than can be gleaned from even the most dedicated wordsmith scholarship.

Material on this page is ©1999 Stan Tenen and licensed to Meru Foundation, POB 503, Sharon, MA 02067.
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